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Law School Case Brief

Burns v. McCormick - 233 N.Y. 230, 135 N.E. 273 (1922)


Not every act of part performance will move a court of equity, though legal remedies are inadequate, to enforce an oral agreement affecting rights in land. There must be performance unequivocally referable to the agreement, performance which alone and without the aid of words of promise is unintelligible or at least extraordinary unless as an incident of ownership, assured, if not existing.


James Halsey, an elderly man and a widower, told the plaintiffs that if they gave up their home and business in New York, and boarded and cared for him during his life, the house and lot with its furniture and equipment would be theirs upon his death. They did as he asked, and boarded and tended Halsey till he died. Neither deed nor will, nor memorandum subscribed by the promisor, existed to authenticate the promise. Litigation ensued when decedent died. Defendant heirs asserted that plaintiffs did not have a contract with decedent on the grounds that the agreement was barred pursuant to the Statute of Frauds. Plaintiffs successfully received a judgment within a lower court, and defendants appealed.


Were the plaintiffs entitled to performance?




The Court held that the plaintiffs cannot maintain an action against the executors of decedent’s will for the specific performance of the alleged contract, when the Statute of Frauds was interposed as a defense, upon the ground that, relying upon his promise, they had performed their part of the contract. According to the Court, the acts of part performance were not solely and unequivocally referable to a contract for the sale of land. Since that is so, they did not become sufficient because part of the plaintiff's loss was without a remedy at law.

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